We Chat to Paguro Upcycle, Nottingham’s Contemporary Upcycled Fashion and Home Accessories Brand

Interview: Addie Kenogbon
Tuesday 14 November 2023
reading time: min, words

In recent years, sustainability in the fashion world has been a hot topic, but for Nottingham contemporary upcycled fashion and home accessories brand Paguro Upcycle, it’s been the bedrock of the brand since it first launched a decade ago. Paguro Upcycle has made a name for itself with its eye-catching pieces, made out of discarded items such as bike inner tube and wood off-cuts, which have been given a second life as jewellery, homewear, clothing and more.

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Many people may remember the Paguro Upcycle shop from when it had a physical store in the Broadmarsh before the shopping centre was demolished a few years ago. Now available online and at various museum shops as well as small boutiques across the country, this month marks the brand’s ten-year anniversary. We caught up with owner Yen W Goo to look back on where it all began and to find out more about what she’s been up to since closing the doors to the Broadmarsh store…

Can you tell us about how Paguro Upcycle began?
I'm actually a qualified chartered tax accountant, which is very different from what I do now. I’m originally from Malaysia and it's just really by chance that when I had my sabbatical, I went back to Malaysia. I was starting to rethink what I was going to do with my life and whether I wanted to continue in my profession. I came across a brand that was using recycled materials to make really beautiful products, pieces I would use myself and be proud of using. Not only that, but they were creating a social enterprise, and that’s what gave me the business idea. I met up with this group of artisans that made things using inner tube. They had started an environmental project because they kept seeing people burning rubber as it’s often the easiest way of getting rid of rubber.

Through their project, they taught the locals in Central Java how to recycle, as well as about the craftsmanship of creating the upcycled products which at the time were very basic bags, jewellery and wallets.

So, I started working with them, and ten years on, we’ve expanded into different products and designs. They’ve also introduced me to some of their friends or the artists that they know who share the same passion.

Do you make the pieces yourself?
No, I don’t. All the makers and artists that I work with are either sole makers or social enterprises who all share the same passion that they want to create quality products by using recycled materials or using waste materials rather than new materials. We just all share that same passion, really. I used to work with the artisans in Malaysia as well, but unfortunately due to Covid, they had to shut their businesses because a lot of these small makers had been badly impacted. So, now my makers are mainly in Indonesia, but I also work with makers in Nottingham as well.

The black bike chain accessories, for example, are actually made in Nottingham using salvaged recycled bike chains from bike shops. These are then cleaned and made into something new.  

Can you tell us more about the products?
We try to make everything very contemporary and change the ideas people have about handmade products, which people can sometimes think are quite badly made. When I first started, nobody had heard of the word upcycle and now it's the norm, which is great to see.

What’s the inspiration behind the designs?
For each creative, the inspiration's slightly different but it’s mainly just inspired by creating art out of recycled pieces. I personally like nature and culture and also geometric styles, so you’ll see a lot of this being reflected in the design itself. It’s all about what's inspired daily life. For example, one of the bestsellers that we stock is our Oceans range, which is made of off-cuts of wood and hand-painted in different shades of blue to reflect the waves. It’s supposed to bring back memories of people going on holiday. In fact, I had one of my customers tell me that it reminded her of when she was younger and her parents took her to the beach. So it triggered a lot of those embedded memories of good times for a lot of people.

That's what I'm trying to achieve really, and especially on the cultural side of things, we're trying to achieve the culture of sustainability. Being from Malaysia as well, I'm trying to combine the East meets West culture in the designs, but of course we have to make those designs match the Western designs and market.

You recently had a pop-up at John Lewis, how did it feel to be back out there again in a physical store?
Even though we’ve been around for ten years, doing the pop-up at John Lewis meant I met a lot of customers that had never heard of us or never seen our products, so it was great to be able to meet a new crowd of customers who appreciate handmade upcycled goods.

Now that you no longer have your Broadmarsh shop, where can people buy your pieces?
I mainly sell online now through Etsy and our website, but we also sell wholesale to several small boutiques around the country, as well as abroad to places such as the USA and Germany. You can also find our products stocked in museum shops and galleries including the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. We have also recently sold our pieces in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland for their Beyond the Little Black Dress exhibition. 

Over the course of the ten years since you first launched onto the market, what have been your key highlights?
For me, one of the main highlights has been seeing how the market has changed, really. I think now seeing that sustainability is part of people's lives now, especially with the younger generations, is so great. It’s also been brilliant to be able to support the makers we work with, especially after Covid which left many of them struggling as many of them sell their pieces in their local market so they depend on tourists to make money. However, due to Covid, many of them had to shut down completely, and became heavily reliant on us. So we just try to be helpful where we can like loaning them money that they can pay back over the years, for example. We just go above and beyond to help as it’s not just about a makers to sellers relationship.

And then maybe I should be proud, at least little, of myself that from a very small business that was trying to find a space in the market without any retail experience, I’m still here today. At one point I was doubting myself whether this was the right thing to do, especially when first starting out. There was a lot of self-doubt, but we’ve come a long way and I now believe I've been doing something right. I've been helping the environment, helping the makers and introducing something unique to the market. So that’s certainly something to be really proud of.

How are your pieces made?
If you’re using anything that's not natural, for example, and you put it in a washing machine, it will still create waste and pollution. So that's why I always insist that we use the most original form of recycled material. We're using inner tube, bike chains, army fabric and off-cuts of wood to make something really special. We don’t have any added processes that spend more energy to reprocess too.

We stock quite a lot of statement jewellery which are pretty arty and edgy, and our jewellery made from inner tube is hand cut using just one piece rather than using laser cutting machines, as then it gets too hot and creates smoke which is just as bad for the environment as burning rubber. Cutting by hand also requires technique which means we’re still preserving someone’s job and preserving the craftsmanship. We also stock messenger backpacks made of inner tube which is really durable and waterproof, and we have cutting boards, serving boards and bowls made of leftover wood from the furniture factories that are often found in Central Java, which create huge amounts of wasted wood that simply gets thrown away. We have belts that have been made into motorbike tyres which is perfect for the vegan market as it gives a similar effect as leather. 

So what have you got in store for the next ten years?
I’m hoping to work with more artisans and be the marketplace that people would think of if they’re looking for top quality upcycled products. I’d also like to expand the business especially in this difficult retail market as well. So hopefully, I’d like to do more pop-up shops in Nottingham and around the UK, as well as open another retail shop at some point. 

We have more Christmas decorations launching this year as well as more jewellery, a new backpack and we’ve also recently collaborated with an artist based in Birmingham called Batik Ying. She’s originally from Malaysia and uses the Batik process to create art. We’ll be shifting over more into different cultures and more sustainability, as that’s my own purpose. I really believe true art is the best way to express culture, so I guess that's our next direction.

To find out more about Paguro Upcycle, visit paguroupcycle.com


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